Study: Socially vulnerable areas are more likely to have natural gas transmission and collection lines


The CDC base map shows the degree of social vulnerability by county. Dark blue areas are the most socially vulnerable and light green is the least. The red line overlay represents the approximate route of the Mountain Valley Pipeline Southgate project. It would cross two socially vulnerable counties – Rockingham and Alamance – as well as part of the Occaneechi Band of Saponi Nation Tribal Lands, north of Burlington.

Four university researchers, including Ryan Emanuel and Louis Rivers III of NC State University, found that of the 2,261 U.S. counties crossed by gas pipelines, counties with more socially vulnerable populations have significantly higher pipeline densities than those that are less socially vulnerable.

Their finblows appeared last month in the academic journal GeoHealth.

Previous research has focused on the upstream and downstream effects of pipelines, such as hydraulic fracturing wellheads and power plants.

This is the first academic paper to analyze the potential health and environmental issues associated with what is known as “middle ground” infrastructure – natural gas transmission and gathering lines.

“These findings have implications for environmental justice,” the authors wrote, including burdens on indigenous peoples. “… By considering the implications for environmental justice of an entire pipeline system, policymakers, researchers and others can better understand the societal impacts of oil and gas flowing through the network.”

In North Carolina, the now canceled Atlantic Coast pipeline is believed to have passed through tribal lands, including those of the Haliwa-Saponi and Lumbee. Some Indigenous peoples oppose pipeline projects because of the potential damage to ancestral lands that are of cultural, historical or religious significance.

The Mountain Valley Pipeline Southgate project would run for over 45 miles, entering near Eden, Rockingham County, and ending at Haw River, Alamance County. According to the CDC Social vulnerability index

The index measures a community’s ability to prepare for, cope with and recover from natural disasters and environmental risks, including pollution.

The Transco pipeline also transports natural gas through western Piedmont. This map only shows the location of the main line, not the spurs or muster lines. (Source: Natural Gas Intelligence)

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality denied a water quality permit for the project, which the owners of the pipeline appealed.

In numbers:

  • 320,000 miles ago – collection and transportation pipelines in the United States
  • Of these miles, 173,000 are ashore.
  • Almost three-quarters of US counties – 2,261 – are crossed by a pipeline.
  • On average, each county contains about 75 miles of pipeline.
  • 26 US counties have at least 600 miles of pipeline

The authors note that “the relationships between pipeline density and social vulnerability do not imply that vulnerable communities have been targeted by pipeline developers or that vulnerable communities have arisen near pipelines.”

However, the correlations confirm that pipeline networks are not distributed randomly, the document claims. “Regardless of responsibility or intention, the disproportionately high density of gas pipelines in areas of high social vulnerability deserves increased attention.”

The researchers note that federal analyzes of environmental justice are “frequently criticized as being methodologically flawed, rote procedural, or ineffective in preventing or minimizing the negative impacts imposed disproportionately on socially vulnerable populations.”

Although these analyzes use census data, they often fail to capture the “ground truth”, which only community visits and discussions with residents can provide. This was a common complaint about the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s environmental justice analysis of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which overlooked these concerns, as well as the cumulative impacts of other sources of pollution.

“A more comprehensive view” of transportation systems is needed, the researchers wrote, to inform regulators and policymakers of systemic disparities across the energy grid. This includes “the extent to which vulnerable rural communities subsidize this policy through inequitable exposure to environmental, health and other risks”.


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